Catholic Sentinel photos by Ed Langlois
 Sister Dominica Mchau chats with Marjorie Spoelstra at Martha & Mary Home.
Catholic Sentinel photos by Ed Langlois
 Sister Dominica Mchau chats with Marjorie Spoelstra at Martha & Mary Home.
Minutes before he died, a 93-year-old man told Sister Dominica Mchau that he finally had everything. He explained to the nun that he had never before found love in life.

The scene took place at Martha & Mary Home in Southeast Portland. The idea for a ministry to the dying emerged in the 1990s, after Oregon voters approved doctor-assisted suicide. A group of Catholics knew there was a better response to the end of life and wanted to act on their conviction.

"Life and hope are best nurtured and expressed in family and in home," says Patricia Cary, the Catholic hospice nurse who founded the ministry.  

Regardless of their ability to pay, terminally ill patients are welcomed into the simple, light-filled, five-bedroom house not far from Holy Family Church. Because it's small, the ministry can give residents a lot of personal attention.

"The model here is fantastic," says Mary Fleury, a Providence hospice nurse who works part time at Mary & Martha Home. "The care patients get here is wonderful. It's collaborative and it's very personal, individual care."

When staff ask 89-year-old resident Marjorie Spoelstra what sounds good for lunch, she smiles puckishly and requests pizza and beer. Everyone laughs. However, it's not unusual for volunteers to dash to the store for culinary requests, including lots of ice cream.

"If you have to come to a place to die, this is a good one," says Spoelstra, whose bright blue eyes still sparkle. Former secretary to Portland Rabbi Joshua Stampfer, she has Parkinson's disease.  

Spoelstra's daughter, Elizabeth Zimmerman, says her mother was thrilled to come to a place where she was not awakened every four hours to have her blood pressure and temperature taken.

"This is a place to be quiet and rest," Zimmerman says. Spoelstra has actually improved markedly during her time at Martha & Mary Home.

The small non-profit began as a group of volunteers who make sure that no one dies alone. Even in the middle of the night, they go to houses, hospitals and homes to sit with those who would otherwise be alone in their last weeks, days and hours.

Now that the house is established, about 90 volunteers do all kinds of tasks: cooking, cleaning, shopping, gardening and listening to residents and their families. The home has trained staff on duty, including Sister Dominica, who sleeps in the basement and is the abiding face of the ministry.

"Martha & Mary Home is where people feel loved and love others," Sister Dominica says. "We suffer with them and have joy with them."

Tony Morris, a retired construction company owner who helped start the Father Bernard Youth Center in Mount Angel, is also on staff as volunteer coordinator.
"For the last year, Jesus has taught me how to die," says Morris, who marvels at how residents make the ultimate transition with grace.

Martha & Mary Home is unabashedly Catholic. But staff respect what residents believe. No one pushes Catholicism, but it's there for the taking.

The home, which opened in late 2010, will not help people in assisted suicide. One man who wanted to go that route abandoned the pursuit after a few weeks of personal care. The teaching of the Catholic Church on the dignity of human life provides the foundation for the whole undertaking.

Martha & Mary Ministry is located in the Eastmoreland home of the late Bob and Evelyn Dieringer, who were active in church work and charity.   

Some parts of the house has been remodeled so it can better serve as a modern care center. Bathrooms have been updated, walls removed, a nurses' station added. Bob's wood-paneled hot tub room is now a chapel, complete with icon of the gospel characters Martha and Mary serving Jesus in their different ways — giving the Lord food and drink and sitting at his feet to listen deeply.

The ministry emulates that two-pronged ministry of its namesakes. "Both are important at the end of life," says Cary, sister of Baker Bishop Liam Cary. "It's not just the task of keeping people comfortable and clean — it's prayer, too."

Archbishop John Vlazny will bless the house's chapel on Aug. 29.

Each year near All Souls Day, Holy Redeemer Parish in Portland — Cary's church — holds a vespers for the ministry. The names of those who have died are read aloud. In a year and a half, 40 people have died in the home's care.

Now that the house is established, Cary hopes to work on building up the visiting volunteers, which she calls "compassionate companions." She wants to bolster the ministry's education and envisions more homes in the Portland area.  

Supporter Greg Heinrichs calls Cary "the energy, the spirit, the life behind Martha & Mary Ministries."

Holy Cross Father Jim Lies, a former University of Portland official, speaking at a spring benefit dinner, called the home "a place of comfort, safety and warmth." In other words, the priest said, it's a "real home." Father Lies said that places like Martha & Mary Home carry family members as much as they carry patients.

"We are here to celebrate the work and wisdom of those who cherish life," Father Lies concluded, "and those the world does not know well enough to cherish."